Dr. R.B. Ekanayake (RB) – Perfect gentleman and technocrat of highest integrity

A tribute


RB hailed from Kandy and was educated at Trinity College. He entered the Science Faculty of the University of Ceylon in 1960 and graduated with Second Class Honors (Upper Division) in 1963. Subsequently he won a scholarship to the University of Lancaster in the UK where he successfully read for a Master’s Degree in Operations Research.

I first met Dr. R.B. Ekanayake at the State Engineering Corporation where he was Systems Analyst / Programmer. RB was one of the four Analyst/Programmers attached to the Computer Division which boasted of Sri Lanka’s first ever Computer Installation handling engineering and commercial tasks. Thus RB can truly be considered a pioneer in ushering Sri Lanka into the electronic age

When the Computer Society was inaugurated in the early 1970’s RB was the obvious and automatic choice to head it as he had the necessary credentials and acceptability. RB was a Member of the British Computer Society at the time and probably was the only member resident in the island. The universal acceptability among the computer fraternity is amply demonstrated by the fact that he was elected unopposed as president continuously for a period of ten years.

After a successful career with the State Engineering Corporation where he rose to head the computer division RB moved to the commercial sector to undertake new challenges brought about through the open economic policies introduced in 1978. He joined the Bank of Ceylon in 1980 as Director, Data Processing to pioneer its automation and modernization efforts. Bank of Ceylon was the largest bank and the first including the foreign banks to implement computerized processing of commercial transactions though on a limited scale. Again RB was truly a pioneer in the automation of banking and the entire commercial sector.

Among the many firsts RB achieved at the bank the successful use of standard telecommunication lines provided by Sri Lanka Telecom (Government Department) to link the newly constructed Bank of Ceylon tower and the former head office at York Street is of note. The younger generation may not readily appreciate the significance of the achievement. This was at a time when Telecom was a bad word, notorious for inefficiencies, frequent break downs, poor line quality - the lot. To outsiders this was placing the bank ’on the line ‘. RB had confidence in Telecom and went ahead. The rest is history.

There was hardly anyone in the Bank who understood what RB was up to but had the utmost confidence in him to deliver the goods and was given a virtual free hand. This definitely was the case at the other banks too where RB worked later on.

RB found the invitation to set up a fully automated banking operation with no clerical hands a challenge too tempting to refuse. He joined Sampath Bank on February 2, 1987 and along with his dedicated team had the system ready for the Bank’s soft opening by the Governor of the Central Bank on March 25, 1987. The feat achieved in a mere seven weeks was a near miracle. At Sampath RB introduced the country’s first multi location ATM network, worked closely with TeleCom engineers to link Kandy, Kurunegala and Matara branches online to Colombo as the respective branches were opened. Where land lines were not available RB went Arial. He was bold enough to use radio links when most others thought data communication over radio links was not feasible with the technology available at the time. To obtain the required radio links RB had to develop capable suppliers himself as service providers as available at present did not exit.

After five years having ensured that a stable systems and the technology for expansion were in place he wanted a bigger challenge. Sampath was not large enough. He moved to Commercial Bank the largest bank in the private sector. The mandate was to automate the entire branch network numbering 50-60. The task was completed successfully within the given time frame. While at Commercial, RB scored another first. This time it was the introduction of Telephone Banking. RB reached retiring age at Commercial Bank and severed his association with them soon after.

RB by then had automated three banks from scratch. In the case of the first two viz. Bank of Ceylon and Sampath he had to direct the development of a major portion of the software in house. It was at a time when tools were rudimentary and trained personnel were hard to come by. Candidates, most often university graduates with aptitude were selected for analyses and programming and after receiving basic training from vendors had to be trained further on the job. RB did yeoman service in directing new recruits during all stages of their training and development.

It is said that a person does only one project of automating a bank from scratch in one’s lifetime. RB has the singular distinction of automating three banks from scratch within a decade. The enormity of his efforts needs to be placed in its proper perspective. Bank of Ceylon at the time was manned by people with a conservative mindset deep rooted in tradition and completely averse to change and highly unionized. Unions in general viewed automation as a threat to their livelihood through the curtailment of overtime and redundancies. The country itself was just emerging from the shadows of a closed economy which saw automation as an obstacle to the creation of job opportunities in addition to being a waste of valuable foreign exchange. The migration of manual records to an electronic medium in an organization as large as the Bank of Ceylon was in itself a stupendous task. The same constraints were present at Commercial Bank. It is in the above context one has to appreciate RB’s contribution.

It is really significant that the implementation of the software even when purchased from vendors was handled by RB and his team thus saving enormous amounts of money for the institutions he worked for. Those familiar with the implementation charges levied by vendors which most often are more than the software itself will readily realize the value of RB’s efforts. Apart from the savings RB handled all post implementation problems, enhancements and modifications which are irritating and expensive all by himself though the committed and dedicated team he directed. RB never ‘pinched’ staff from former employers. He motivated and provided leadership for the staff assigned to him to achieve extraordinary results.

After retirement he was invited to assist Bank of Ceylon once more to complete the automation. On his second stint with Bank of Ceylon RB successfully connected all the branches numbering approximately 300 to the central system in Colombo. It is impossible to imagine of any other project of such enormity. Further he introduced LEAP which combined networks of the Bank of Ceylon and Sampath Bank so that customers of either bank could use the ATMs of the other without the services of an international switch. He was the consultant to Seylan Bank for a while thereafter and was assisting Sanasa Bank in its automation efforts at the time of his death. For a long period of time he functioned as a consultant to the Employees Trust Fund Board where he was instrumental in introducing a number of improvements, some of which such as viewing one’s ETF balance online are about to be launched.

The number of public, educational and community projects and activities where he was keenly involved in are so numerous that it is impossible to recall all of them. Apart from being the president for 10 years of the Computer Society of Sri Lanka RB was the president of the Association of Professional Bankers of Sri Lanka and Chairman, LankaClear the banks’ cheque clearing house. RB was a member CINTEC and ICTA , a member of the council of the University of Kelaniya, Chairman, Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) and a member of the Board of Management of the Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies at the time of death having served the respective institution for a number of years. At each of these institutions he served on various committees chairing some. At the early stages RB took a keen interest in computer education and functioned as a visiting lecturer in a number of Universities.

For RB a lack or shortage of resources was never a serious drawback. He had the unusual knack, confidence and technical competence to innovate to get the utmost out of the available resources. His genius was amply evident at Sampath Bank where the resources were scarce being a start up venture gearing itself to compete with the giants. His ability to select the best candidates and train and guide them was exceptional. His problem solving ability is talked about even today by those privileged to work with him. His approach was so clear and simple that even the security personnel were able to sort out problems with his instructions given over the phone from his residence in Ambalangoda.

The Computer Society of Sri Lanka honored RB by making him a fellow of the society along with three others who pioneered the computer industry in Sri Lanka. This was the first instance such an honor was bestowed by the Society. In 2009 University of Kelaniya in recognition of the outstanding contribution made by RB to the country and the industry in particular conferred the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy (honoris causa)

More than his technical expertise, competence, dedication (the list is endless) it is his integrity as a person, professional, administrator (here too the list is endless) that stands out. He is the person of highest integrity among those I have associated in life. There is absolutely no doubt that anyone who has had the privilege of associating with him closely will agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed. No superlative will adequately cover his innumerable virtues.

It is indeed sad that RB is no more. RB was a legend and a genius in the mould of Thomas Edison. As with Edison for RB genius was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. A person so rare that one is unlikely to meet another like him ever again. He leaves his wife, two sons, daughters- in- law and grand-daughters all of whom he adored, and himself adored by the family, relations and innumerable students and colleagues.

May his journey through Samsara be short.

Janaka de Silva.

Former Corporate Advisor, Bank of Ceylon,

Former Director/General Manager, Sampath Bank

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